Last June, Maria Nawrocki, a Harper Woods employee, left; Chaka Johnson, community relations manager for Harper Woods Schools, center; and City Manager Joe Rheker helped plant phase one of the Triumph Middle School garden.

Last June, Maria Nawrocki, a Harper Woods employee, left; Chaka Johnson, community relations manager for Harper Woods Schools, center; and City Manager Joe Rheker helped plant phase one of the Triumph Middle School garden.

Photo provided by Suzy Berschback


Healthy Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods looks back on first year of operation

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published January 14, 2020

 Several Harper Woods High School students lend a hand at the “Out of the Darkness” Suicide Prevention Walk in May of 2019. The students helped plan the walk and raised money for suicide prevention and awareness.

Several Harper Woods High School students lend a hand at the “Out of the Darkness” Suicide Prevention Walk in May of 2019. The students helped plan the walk and raised money for suicide prevention and awareness.

Photo provided by MaryJo Harris

 In October, Mayor Ken Poynter and his wife, Margaret, were storytellers in the Legends of the Fall biking event organized by the Healthy Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods initiative.

In October, Mayor Ken Poynter and his wife, Margaret, were storytellers in the Legends of the Fall biking event organized by the Healthy Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods initiative.

Photo provided by Suzy Berschback

HARPER WOODS — The Healthy Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods initiative has completed its first year of operation, and community leaders in Harper Woods have hailed the strides made by the organization.

The group, which began as a collaboration between Beaumont Health and CARE of Southeastern Michigan, was formed with the goal of reaching out to the Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods communities to improve the physical and mental health of residents.

“We started about a year ago last September,” said Suzy Berschback, the organization’s project manager. “It began with different meetings at local libraries. We invited people in to create a strategic plan with the communities. We wanted to see what the community needs were. We came up with some programs to get people moving more, eating healthier, and connecting and supporting each other better.”

“I wanted to focus on mental health and substance use disorders, while Suzy would focus on the body,” added MaryJo Harris, the community organizer for CARE of Southeastern Michigan. “She, working through Beaumont, does a survey in communities to find what the biggest health issues are. After the survey ... we saw we had similar goals and decided to work together.”

City leaders were excited to learn about the new opportunities that Healthy Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods was offering.

“In 2017, the city completed its neighborhood improvement plan, and the one thing we learned after meeting Suzy and MaryJo … was that we overlooked community health and its importance,” said Harper Woods City Manager Joe Rheker. “They explained to us the serious disparities in things like life expectancy, air quality, quality of food consumption there is just between Harper Woods and places 5 miles from here, so right away we wanted to be involved in what they were putting together.”

More information on the organization can be found at www.healthygphw.org. It hosts monthly meetings that are open to the public.

“We started working with Wayne State University (officials) in (regard to) public health and different interest groups and meeting monthly at the Grosse Pointe Neighborhood Club every third Wednesday of the month at 8:30 a.m.,” Berschback said. “These meetings are also open to the public, so anyone can attend. The idea is no one group can support a community, but by coming together, we can meet these big objectives. This means partnering with police departments, schools, aid organizations and so forth.”

Berschback said they have begun several new activities in the Harper Woods area to promote positive physical and mental health.

“We started walking and biking groups, we helped create school gardens to install pollinators and plant new flowers and vegetables, and we worked with schools in the area to talk about healthy eating and living,” she said. “We also are working with Chartwells Food Service, which provides the food for school meals, to coordinate healthier eating at Triumph Middle School, which is where we installed one of those gardens.”

“I’ve been working mostly in Harper Woods High School with students,” said Harris. “They helped the coalition plan a suicide prevention walk in May of 2019. That raised money for suicide prevention and awareness. In the fall, I worked with the students to run a drug prevention day called Red Ribbon Day. Everyone wore red ribbons to show they would be drug free, and we distributed a lot of information about drug prevention. We also recently ran a program at the high school on reducing anxiety. We also taught all the teachers how to use Naloxone, which counters (opioid) overdoses.”

The pair said they are planning additional efforts in 2020.

“One of the things we were recently talking with (Parent and Community Relations Manager) Chaka Johnson, at the Harper Woods School District, about was helping build the (school) library program through book drives and free library options,” Berschback said. “We have an Americorps student coming to Harper Woods to work with (Harper Woods Economic Development Director) Ty Hinton to better connect residents to healthy living resources. Doctors will be coming to give presentations on various medical topics in the coming year for both students and the general public.”

“We plan to do another drug prevention day, we want to do more in the schools on stress reduction, and we will be coming up with a calendar in the next few weeks to decide what else they want to do in 2020,” said Harris.

Harris said the impact such activities can have is incalculable.

“With the amount of stress you hear people going through, having these resources available to them and seeing other people are dealing with these issues really helps people,” she said. “Students who walked in the suicide prevention walk really benefited, for example, because they saw other people who have gone through similar things they might be experiencing.”

Rheker believes the organization has made progress within the city.

“The biggest impact was the awareness campaign. We have seen that awareness take shape in a number of ways,” he said. “The garden at the middle school and changing the curriculum in the school district have been particularly impactful on the community, I think.”

While Berschback thinks strong strides have been made, she said even more is on tap for the future.

“I think we feel like we’ve gotten some good traction after this first year and we see a lot of potential for further progress,” she remarked. “It took us a little while to get the word out and get grant funding, but I think we have found our footing and we are finding good people to make a good difference in the community. We are off to a good start, but we have an opportunity to create better help.”